15 Extraordinary Medieval Cities Around the World
Between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, from the 5th to 15th centuries, the Middle Ages was a time of unrest, turmoil and brutality.
It was during this period that the bubonic plague killed more than 20 million people, the Crusades wiped out millions more in the name of religious dominance, and horrifying torture techniques were developed and employed. But the Middle Ages also ushered in important advances in architecture and culture, including the erection of magnificent fortresses, cathedrals and town squares.
No matter what side of history you’re looking to explore, you’ll find it in the following cities touting well-preserved relics from their compelling medieval past.
“National Geographic” has described Bruges as “one of the best-preserved examples of a medieval European settlement.” A hub for trade in the Middle Ages, the UNESCO World Heritage Site city includes well-preserved sites like a 13th-century belfry that can be scaled for fantastic views.
To really immerse yourself in Bruges' history, check out the Historium, a museum that uses interactive exhibits to educate visitors on what life was like in the Middle Ages. A virtual-reality experience even allows you to “explore” Bruges in the year 1435.
Though newer, the city’s 16th-century main square is another must-visit. And if weather permits, make sure to book a boat tour — though touristy, it’s a great way to see parts of town that would be less accessible by foot.
When producers for the Middle Ages-inspired fantasy epic “Game of Thrones” were deciding on filming sites, Dubrovnik was an obvious choice. The city is one of the world’s best-preserved medieval cities, giving it the necessary historic atmosphere to effortlessly stand in for King’s Landing.
Besides its GoT connection, Dubrovnik's main draw is its Old Town. Surrounded by thick stone walls dating back to the 13th century, it contains exceptionally well-preserved squares and churches built centuries ago. Historical sights built a bit after the Middle Ages include the Sponza Palace, a stunning mix of Gothic and Renaissance architectural styles — and one of the only buildings to survive the Great Earthquake of 1667.
Fun fact: Dubrovnik also has one of the earliest medieval sewage systems in the world. It dates back to 1296 and is still in use today!
Prague, Czech Republic
Most preserved medieval sights are contained within a small town or city square. In Prague, the entire sprawling city contains fantastic Middle Ages architecture.
That said, Old Town Square is particularly striking. Its star attraction is the Prague Astronomical Clock, which showcases a parade of apostle figures every hour on the hour between 9 a.m. and 11 p.m. The clock is mounted on Old Town Hall, itself a must-visit that dates back to 1364 and includes an observation deck overlooking the city.
Prague also boasts a handful of medieval taverns; the most memorable, Stredoveka Krcma, opened its doors in 1375 and has since lined its walls with human skulls (yikes!). If that’s not your style, Prague is full of Gothic watchtowers, the sprawling Prague Castle and the Church of Our Lady Before Týn.
The only city in the world to sit on two continents — Europe and Asia — Istanbul is a cultural melting pot where disparate influences meet to create something truly unique. But it’s not just a diverse culture that sets Istanbul apart; the city also touts a rich and fascinating history.
Dating back to between the 13th and 11th centuries BC, the city formerly known as Constantinople has served as the capital of both the Roman Empire and Ottoman Empires. Today, you can learn its history by exploring a handful of preserved buildings from the Middle Ages.
Most notable is the circa-537 Hagia Sophia, a former Greek Orthodox Christian church and Ottoman imperial mosque that now serves as a museum. The Topkapi Palace is also worth a visit. Constructed in 1465, it served as the administrative headquarters of the Ottoman sultans, just over a decade after the conquest of Constantinople.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany
One of the most romantic cities in Western Europe, Rothenburg ob der Tauber looks as if it was pulled directly out of a fairytale — which perhaps explains why it’s inspired settings in Disney movies like the animated “Pinocchio” and live-action “Beauty and the Beast.”
For a taste of historic charm, take a stroll through the medieval old town, where you’ll find the oft-photographed Plönlein, a quaint half-timbered building flanked by two structures dating back to 1204: the Kobolzeller tower and the Siebers Tower.
Be sure to check out the Medieval Criminal Museum as well, which displays the horrific side of the Middle Ages — think torture chambers, social-shaming tools and various other sinister devices.
Mont Saint Michel, France
While Mont Saint Michel may be considerably more difficult to visit than, say, Paris, it is entirely worth the trek.
The island, located off the northwestern coast of Normandy, is a UNESCO World Heritage site that has remained largely unchanged since the Middle Ages. It is home to just 44 residents, including monks and nuns who reside in a Gothic-styled abbey, built over a period of 1,300 years and completed in 1523.
Pause to take photos of medieval towers and walls as you make your way through the city’s crooked streets and alleyways, imagining life in the town centuries ago.
The medieval town of Mystras has been largely abandoned since 1832, when King Otto founded the new city of Sparta nearby. Fortunately, its fascinating ruins have been carefully preserved for historical and tourism purposes.
Head to the amphitheater, which was built around the fortress in 1249 by the prince of Achaia, William of Villehardouin. Then visit the various ruins of palaces, monasteries and churches spread out over this fortified mountainside city, including the fresco-filled Pantanassa Monastery.
While you can certainly head to Mystras on your own, day trips from Athens are popular among visitors and worth the extra effort. Come to learn the story of a once-great metropolis that, in the last decades of the Byzantine period, was considered second only to Constantinople in its influence and power.
You may have already visited Venice on a whirlwind Italian trip, but it’s worth it to return just to dive deep into medieval history.
Take, for example, the city’s ever-popular gondolas. These days, their main purpose is to provide romantic rides for tourists, but their earliest recorded use dates back to 1094. For the next several centuries, they were luxury vessels used by the city’s elite, until a Senate law in 1562 aimed at limiting ostentation dictated that they be black and bare. Gondolas would go on to become a primary mode of transportation, with some 8,000 to 10,000 of them used during the 17th and 18th centuries. (Today, there are about 400.)
On your medieval tour, also check out St. Mark’s Basilica, which debuted in 1094 and is outfitted with gorgeous medieval mosaics. And make time to see the Ca' d'Oro or Palazzo palace, a treasure from the later Middle Ages that opened in 1430.
Another fortified medieval city, Carcassonne goes by a name that makes its historic pedigree clear: Cité Médiévale.
More than 4 million visitors come every year to see its impressive medieval walls and explore its sights, like the Chateau et Remparts, a keep constructed for the city’s viscounts in the 12th century, and Pont-Vieux, a bridge spanning the Aude River that was originally built in the 14th century (and was reconstructed in the 19th century).
Winding streets and alleyways merit getting lost in, and architectural boat tours are available to learn more about the town’s expansive history.
Cinque Terre, Italy
One of the most striking coastal destinations in Europe (and that’s saying something), Cinque Terre is a must-visit for foodies and history-buffs alike.
The string of five seaside villages includes Vernazza, where a staircase near the harbor leads to Castello Doria, Cinque Terra’s oldest fortification, constructed in the year 1,000. In Manarola, you can check out the remains of a castle from the 13th century. And in Riomaggiore, a hillside castle built for defense purposes traces back to the 13th century.
All the villages also include colorful homes and waterfront cafes serving fresh seafood and fine wine.
Another fortified city, York is one of the only cities where you can actually walk on top of the original medieval walls, which stretch for over 2 miles and take about 2 hours to stroll in full. The formidable walls weigh about 100,000 metric tonnes.
“Harry Potter” fans will particularly love this destination: Shambles Street in York’s city center inspired Diagon Alley. Make sure to pop into the Jorvik History Centre as well, which is home to many ancient Viking artifacts from when the city was largely controlled by the infamous historic seafarers.
Medieval and Renaissance history meet, to beautiful effect, in Siena.
Head to Piazza del Campo, which has been lovingly preserved since the 1300s and is one of the grandest medieval squares in Western Europe, home to centuries-old mansions that still stand proud today.
Don’t leave without seeing the city’s gothic cathedral, which broke ground in 1192 and was completed in 1348. The building’s facade features 35 statues of prophets and patriarchs, with the Virgin Mary as the centerpiece.
Finish out your historic immersion by paying a visit to the circa-14th-century Torre del Mangia, a tower that offers magnificent views of the city.
Officially known as Pingyao Ancient City, this medieval Chinese town in central Shanxi is perhaps best known for its economic significance: Two centuries ago, it’s where China’s modern banking industry began.
But its history stretches back much farther than that, promising enough historic sights to easily fill an itinerary. Start with the city’s massive wall, built some 2,700 years ago. Featuring six gates and crisscrossing lanes, it looks like a turtle when viewed from above, earning Pingyao the nickname “Turtle City.”
Another must-visit sight is the aptly named Ancient Government Office, which opened in 1368 and served through both the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Although London is widely regarded as one of the most modern cities in Europe, it would be a disservice to ignore its medieval history, which is still very much evident today.
While most of the city burned down in the Great Fire of 1666, you can catch a glimpse of the Middle Ages by heading to the Tower of London, which once housed a medieval torture chamber.
It’s also worth taking an architectural boat tour, which outlines just how the city has changed — and what has been preserved — since the Middle Ages.
About 12 miles from Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital city, Trakai is home to one of the most impressive medieval castles in all of Europe. Simply called Trakai Island Castle, historians believe it was erected sometime during the 1400s, when Vytautas the Great, the ruler of Lithuania, required extra protection.
Today, visitors can try their hand at archery at the castle’s shooting range, or explore an onsite museum that features medieval weapons among its exhibits.